The ongoing U.S. Marine Corps offensive in southern Afghanistan is slicing through the heart of the country's fertile poppy fields.
Opium harvested from those poppies supplies much of the world with illegal heroin that helps fund the insurgency throughout Afghanistan.
Journalist Gretchen Peters explores the heroin trade in her new book, Seeds of Terror.
Peters tells NPR's Renee Montagne that the growing partnership between drug traffickers, terrorist groups and the Taliban is the new "axis of evil." The Taliban makes hundreds of millions of dollars and behaves "more like a modern-day mafia than a traditional military force," she says.
And the Taliban, whose "involvement in criminality has made them richer and more ruthless," Peters says, still wants to come after the West.
There is a range of reasons farmers grow opium, Peters says. Some grow it because they're forced to by the Taliban; others grow it because it is lucrative, though now oversupply has reduced the price. There are also wealthy landowners "who do it for reasons of greed," she says.
Government corruption, she says, is the biggest challenge going forward in Afghanistan and Pakistan. "It's going to be very difficult [for the U.S.] to find reliable partners" as the U.S. tries to stabilize these two countries.
Even Afghan President Hamid Karzai's brother is considered "one of the central facilitators of the opium trade in Afghanistan," Peters says. Both brothers deny the claims, but there has been no investigation to verify or disprove the accusations.
On the ground, the Obama administration has changed the U.S. policy in Afghanistan to go not after farmers, but dealers, processors and refineries protected by the Taliban. "The Taliban and the drug traffickers earn the vast majority of their money protecting drug shipments that are leaving the region, protecting ... heroin refineries," Peters says.
She says that going after fewer people will not be easy because the organizations are often run by families. "But sustained efforts to disrupt these trafficking organizations is going to make a difference in reducing the amount of money that is reaching the Taliban and other extremist groups that are profiting off of the drug trade."